Sunday, 20 December 2015

2015 Albums of the Year: Top 30




Well, here we are again, folks. Enough of the platitudes, it really has all been said before, hasn't it? You know why we're here. Time to get on with it. Apologies in advance for the verbosity. I'd advise to stick the kettle on and grab a tin of biscuits. Once you've done that, I hope you enjoy.



30.
Artist: Tess Parks & Anton Newcombe
Album: I Declare Nothing
Label: A Records

The simplistic approach is often the best. Anton Newcombe knows this as well as anyone, lending his sonic aptitude to Tess Parks for what is dubbed her sophomore effort in I Declare Nothing. It’s an album with simple chord progressions underneath the Parks' bourgeoning vocals. A voice hidden beneath a foggy obscurity and cigarettes, which operates deep in the heart of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a voyage of academia in some respects. Newcombe has almost taken Parks under his wing in order to nurture and harness these songs. I Declare Nothing is the result of that. The sound of Sunday morning.

It’s hard to pinpoint key tracks, as one track bleeds into another, blurring the lines of peaks and troughs, consequently making I Declare Nothing a well balanced affair. ‘Wehmut’ sees Newcombe stamp his authority within the first three chords, with vibes reminiscent of the exceptional...And This is Our Music. ‘German Tangerine’ showcases Parks' raspy vocal pipes alongside droning keyboard and gentle snare drums. It almost sounds like a track Mazzy Star couldn’t quite capture. The final two tracks, ‘Meliorist’ and the fantastic closing encounter that is ‘Friendlies’ end the album in impressive fashion, with the latter arguably the album’s finest moment.

The cynics may say these songs are merely worthy of gathering around the campfire to. Others may say they are the product of a world class coffee house strumming duo, or at worst a Mazzy Star tribute. All rather lazy depictions, as there’s so much more to I Declare Nothing. This is an ode to the sixties and seventies. Joplin, Mitchell, Lennon, Drake. All the influences are buried within. And like everything Newcombe leaves his fingerprints on, it’s done very well.

Favourite Tracks: German Tangerine, Meliorist, Friendlies.


29.
Artist: Steve Von Till
Album: A Life Unto Itself
Label: Neurot Recordings 
For many that like their sounds hard, heavy, and progressive, Steve Von Till is a household name. Many would claim Neurosis to be the pioneers of the progressive metal genre and, all told, it’s a difficult point to argue. It’s Von Till’s body of work away from Neurosis that both surprises and pleases in equal measure. Firstly, there’s his Harvestman project; a primary focus on ambient incursions, influenced by the latter half of the Neurosis discography. Then there’s his solo project. The man himself and his trusty guitar. He’s made several solid records, perhaps none better than his latest oeuvre, A Life Unto Itself.

It’s a record that has a desolate feel. You can almost sense the dark buzzing of trees outside a barnyard, in the hills of Von Till’s native Idaho. The title track illustrates this – a brooding traipse, as Von Till’s trademark gravelly vocals take centre stage along steel pedal guitar. 'In Your Wings' is a happy marriage between the ominous tones Von Till has carved out with Neurosis and a rich acoustic aesthetic enhanced by the craftsmanship from the soundboards by producer, Randall Dunn. Dunn's ability to squeeze the essence out of each song is an aptitude currently unmatched.

Along with Chelsea Wolfe's Abyss, this hybrid of dark folk reaches its peak through ‘Birch Bark Box'. Its reverberating drone and Von Till’s asphalt-rough groans outweigh most folk tracks put to record this year. Following is the haunting undercurrents of ‘Chasing Ghosts’. It seems like a fitting backdrop for a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Aside from his work with Neurosis, A Life Unto Itself is arguably Von Till's landmark moment. It casts a very similar aesthetic to Marissa Nadler’s July. It’s no coincide that Randall Dunn was also at the helm on that particularly record. Dunn’s efforts on A Life Unto Itself shouldn’t go unnoticed and is yet another string to the bow of one of the finest producers in music today.
Favourite Tracks: A Life Unto Itself, Night on the Moon, Birch Bark Box, Chasing Ghosts.


28.
Artist: Wilco
Album: Star Wars
Label: ANTI-

In the age of all things digital there's usually the odd band throwing out a record or two for free. This year it was Wilco's turn to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of all things disposable, releasing a free album of their own; the follow-up to The Whole Love in the thirty-four minute treasure aptly titled Star Wars.
Star Wars is an album which showcases Wilco at their most eclectic. The 1 minute 16 second kraut rock explosion of 'EKG' is most notably Wilco's greatest what the fuck? moment. Almost to the point where you think Wilco has given their audience anything but a Wilco album.
Things soon become family, though. 'More' is Jeff Tweedy at his best, the track easily good enough to rival anything on Yankee Hotel Foxtel, for mine. 'Random Name Generator' is a no-nonsense downright rocker thanks to the Nels Cline guitar wig out. 'You Satellite' will have most A Ghost is Born devotees screaming from the rooftops, while 'Where do I Begin' will have a similar effect on those who hold Summerteeth close to their heart. 'Magnetized is a captivating end to Star Wars. Once again, Tweedy is the focal point as he sings perhaps the finest sequence of lyrics from the album. "I sleep underneath/A picture that I keep of you next to me/I realise we're magnetized". It's vintage Tweedy.
As far as scope is concerned, Star Wars really does have it all. Wilco's ability to encapsulate their body of work in such a short space of time is some accomplishment. Wilco fans will lap this up, while it's a good entrance point for new ears, too. Most bands at their age would be content in knocking out a bunch of songs that don't stray too far from familiarity. Not Wilco, though. Star Wars clearly demonstrates their enthusiasm to keep on breaking their own boundaries.

Favourite Tracks: More, Random Name Generator, You Satellite, Magnetized.


27.
Artist: Wire
Album: Wire
Label: Pink Flag

British post-punk pioneers, Wire, have always operating outside of the box. In many ways this makes them ahead their time. Look no further than their 1977 debut, Pink Flag. A timeless record that goes down for many as one of the greatest British post-punk debut LP’s. Their follow-up, Chairs Missing, didn’t disappoint, either, garnering just as many plaudits.
Since then, Wire's sonic eclecticism has fascinated many an ear. It’s hard to imagine the same band that released Pink Flag were also the architects of A Bell Is a Cup. That’s Wire, though. Their approach to consistently shift the goal posts is a facet many have come to expect.
Wire is the band’s fourteenth long player. Since 2008’s Object 47, many have claimed Wire to be in a renaissance of sorts and I can’t argue. The aforesaid album - along with 2010’s Red Barked Tree - are among the band’s finest outings, in my opinion. Enter Wire. Another instalment of audible prominence. The self-titled affair was conceived during the band’s numerous tours throughout various parts of the world. Having been lucky enough to see them live last year, tracks such the melodic ‘Blogging’, the ethereal ‘In Manchester’ and the downright show-stopping rocker in ‘Harpooned’ were played and at the time - despite the unfamiliarity - sounded great and on record sound just as good, if not better.

New guitarist, Matthew Simms, has introduced new elements to the band, and provides a nice foil for Colin Newman to impose his dry wit on his audience. ‘High’ is injected with those hard hitting chords that work well in tandem with Newman’s lovely melody. ‘Split Your Ends’ is the best track on Wire. It’s an infusion of vintage Wire and the new incarnation of the band.

Wire reveals itself slowly. It’s a common trait when you associate with this band. They are not an instant proposition and never have been. The proof of their grandeur lies with Newman and his mysterious ability to flesh out the perfect melody. In this case Wire is no different. There are mutterings of a new album in 2016, entitled Read & Burn 04, which are cuts taken from the Wire sessions. If it's anything as good as Wire, then I can't wait.
 
Favourite Tracks: Shifting, In Manchester, High, Split Your Ends, Harpooned.


26.
Artist: My Morning Jacket

Album: The Waterfall
Label: ATO Records

My Morning Jacket have always polarised opinion. A little too weird for those claiming the likes of Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes are the best things since sliced loaf. A little too simplified for the avant-garde clique. They have always been a band ostensibly uncomfortable in their own skin, which has made for some interesting moments; particularly in the latter stages of their career.
Z was their magnum opus. Of that there is little doubt. Many panned Z’s follow-up and the very much left of centre Evil Urges. I dug it. Many also panned the dark meanderings which formed Circuital. I dug it. The Waterfall? Well, you get the picture.
All told, The Waterfall is their best effort since the genre defining Z. The thematic scope, like the musical one, is far and wide, despite the band still playing to its strengths. The opening notes of ‘Believe’ grip you instantly. This is very much My Morning Jacket at their best with the track's groovy incursions knocking on the door of southern boogie. The breezy soul-rock of ‘Compound Fracture’ follows up in fine fashion, while ‘Like a River’ showcases Jim James’ trusty falsetto. In fact, it’s never sounded better!
Many will regard ‘In its Infancy (The Waterfall)’ as the album’s standout track, but that title goes to the album closer, ‘Only Memories Remain’. It’s a number that would have made George Harrison proud. My Morning Jacket have always been capable of penning a slower jam, thus portraying the ability to incapacitate their listener. This song may just be the finest slower turn they’ve ever written.
“It’s a thin line between loving and wasting my time,” sings Jim James on ‘The Thin Line’. I can’t help but think these words form as an ironic taunt towards the naysayers. The Waterfall might not broaden My Morning Jacket's audience but it will certainly give those ingrained within the My Morning Jacket brethren some hope that maybe the best is yet to come from the Louisville natives.
Favourite Tracks: Believe, In its Infancy (The Waterfall), Tropics, Only Memories Remain.

25.
Artist: Destruction Unit

Album: Negative Feedback Resistor
Label: Sacred Bones Records

Starting out in the early 2000s, Arizona’s Destruction Unit (better known as D-Unit to their loyalists) have gradually morphed into something of a sonic stalwart as far as the American underground garage scene is concerned. Surprisingly, Negative Feedback Resistor, the band’s seventh long player, has gathered less favourable reviews. I’ll call a spade a spade here. In a scene that has its fair share of mediocrity, I firmly believe that Negative Feedback Resistor stands alone as a juggernaut of its genre. It really holds all the keys and is bolstered by the work behind the soundboards from the likes of The Icarus Line’s Joe Cardamone and The Men’s Ben Greenberg. 

‘Disinfectant’ sets out the stalls with a maelstrom of power chords, which is quickly followed by the sonic vitality of album highlight, ‘Proper Decay’. Destruction Unit aren't afraid to stretch things out, either. ‘Chemical Reaction/Chemical Delight’ is a prolonged dose of bruising pulp-rock, rife with murky psychedelic reverb.

Destruction Unit’s Negative Feedback Resistor feels like the sound of a pulpy horror movie. Its aesthetic, a pulverising form of tombstone garage rock. It’s something you could ascribe to being punk, but the musicianship is too tight to wrap itself completely around the genre. Frontman, Ryan Rousseau’s howls are reminiscent of the Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster frontman, Guy McKnight . Either that or Elvis Presley in your worst nightmare. His venomous delivery is simply what makes this so good, while the musicianship is not to be sneezed at, either. It’s not the loose baroque essence of punk. It’s all brawn, freight-train fast and perceptively dangerous. Take the speed of The Men, the danger of The Icarus Line and precision of Pissed Jeans and you have Negative Feedback Resistor here and at your service.

Favourite Tracks: Proper Decay, Chemical Reaction/Chemical Delight, Judgment Day, The Upper Hand.
 
 
24.                                                                              Artist: Henry Blacker
Album: Summer Tombs
Label: Riot Season Records
While Queens of the Stone Age have gone somewhat artier in their recent years of existence, not to mention the Melvins currently finding themselves on a creative plateau, this has left somewhat of a void to be filled in the stoner rock brethren. Enter West Country trio, Henry Blacker.

Firstly, Henry Blacker are an offshoot from the irrepressible sonic purveyors otherwise known as Hey Colossus (who themselves have made two stellar long players this year). Secondly, 'Blacker's sophomore album, Summer Tombs, is 2015’s hidden treasure for all stoner fiends and is a mightily strong follow-up to last year’s excellent debut, with the equally excellent title, Hungry Dogs Will Eat Dirty Puddings. 

Any album which opens with a track called ‘Cold Laking’ (is it not one of the best song titles you’ve heard this year?) is worthy of instant attention. Ironically, Henry Blacker are after anything but fame, drugs and blowjobs. This is nuts and bolts DIY at its finest. A bunch of blokes in a garage in England’s West Country just swigging cider (stereotype?), smoking grass and belting out ditties. And mighty fine ones, too. The rumbling distortion is enough to make one’s bowels twitch. Frontman, Tim Farthing’s vocals shift gears nicely between heavy wails and what can be described as spoken word, creating a stimulating juxtaposition in front of reverberating fuzz and distortion.

Summer Tombs is a thirty-two minute clamour of balls to wall no-frills rock. There’s not a weak moment on ‘Tombs. From ‘Cold Laking’ to the foot-stomping ‘Landlubber’ to the sludgy closing title track, this is pure butcher-raw stoner rock. Unforgiving and unpretentious, Henry Blacker deliver heart-on-sleeve swagger and their fans love them all the more for it.
 
Favourite Tracks: Cold Laking, Landblubber, Summer Tombs.

 
23.
Artist: The Declining Winter

Album: Home for Lost Souls
Label: Home Assembly
The elusive project of Leeds based The Declining Winter is one where the remnants of cult-heroes, Hood, lives on. The brains trust of both projects, Richard Adams, bends the aesthetic of Hood into more of an acoustic laden nicety with The Declining Winter.   

Like many of Hood’s releases, The Declining Winter's third LP, Home for Lost Souls, was subject to a first pressing of a measly 250 copies. For the first time in the band's history, a repress was done for a further 400 copies to appease their affectionate factions. With good reason, too, as Home' adds further weight to the band's already impressive catalogue of work. In fact, I'd go as far to say that it's their best effort yet. It was certainly the first album released this year that floored me.

The title track evolves with a slow forlorn guitar riff that threatens to break into some form of pop lament. ‘It Is Intensely Sad’ really is just that. It feels like the sonic backdrop of an imagery consisting of sweeping winds across the Pennines. ‘Hurled to the Curb’ is a psychedelic post-rock journey that almost sounds like Graham Sutton of Bark Psychosis joining forces with Flying Saucer Attack’s David Pearce. ‘The Right True End’ is the longest track on the album and its finest; a meandering ode to rural psychedelia and a pastoral aesthetic that goes unrivalled.

Adams’ ghostly murmurs, along with beautifully crafted instrumentation, help Home for Lost Souls convey an imagery of a wet northern Sunday morning, revelling in the satire of rural psychedelia. The Declining Winter offer rich textures, evoking a real sense of place, which is vastly lost in today's musical landscape. Proper Northern soul? I believe so. In many ways, as strange as it sounds, Home for Lost Souls it's as close to a rock record as Richard Adams and The Declining Winter will ever make.


Favourite Tracks: This Sadness Lacks, Home for Lost Souls, Hurled to the Curb, The Right True End.

22.
Artist: Julia Holter

Album: Have You In My Wilderness
Label: Domino
Julia Holter’s artistic output has always intrigued me. Similar to Chelsea Wolfe, her albums have always provided captivating moments but have struggled to maintain the longevity of greatness over the course of an album’s length. Ekstasis grew close to the point where you thought Loud City Song would indeed be that album. For me, it came up short.

Have You In My Wilderness, Holter’s fourth LP, is a pop album nestled in the framework of avant-garde. Like Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs, the surface appears straightforward but as each listen passes, this album reveals itself with thought-provoking juxtapositions and spectacular virtuoso. In summary, this is that album!

From front to back, there are highlights. Holter presents one of her finest tracks with opener, ‘Feel You’. Its melody, complex but rendered with a fine pop sensibility. ‘Lucette Stranded on the Island’ is an opaque journey backed by elegant strings and haunting synth. ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ is the centre piece of the album, as Holter orchestrates ghostly melodies, horn sections and rich-laden strings; over the course of her four albums, you would be hard pressed to find a more dramatic moment. ‘Every Time Boots’ is Holter at her most simplistic. This track would be a pop marvel if someone like Adele chose to cover it.
 
The piano dirge of ‘Betsy on the Roof’ is arguably the album’s highlight, with Holter's imposing vocal range coupled with the track's solemn undertones really capturing the spirit of Have You In My Wilderness. An album that is easily Holta’s most sonically approachable to date. Along with it being her most personal record, it’s also her finest and one that will most likely broaden her audience.

Favourite Tracks: Feel You, Sea Calls Me Home, Betsy on the Roof, Have You in My Wilderness.
 
21.
Artist: The Pop Group

Album: Citizen Zombie
Label: Freaks R Us
Another year, another reformed band makes a new album. Such news is met with snide contempt from some, whereas others choose to revel in the nostalgia. The Pop Group have been back together for a few years now, sporadically performing live shows here and there. Their comeback opus, Citizen Zombie, sees them moving on from their DIY beginnings, which created a milieu of discordance equating to the landmark album that was Ys. An essential to the post-punk genre.
Citizen Zombie broadens the groundwork of Mark Stewart’s The Politics of Envy (a brilliant accomplishment in its own right and an album previously championed on this blog). Citizen’s aesthetic is far friendlier to the ear and sonically, perhaps less nascent. That may deter some, particularly the pessimists, but to me it makes the experience all the more enjoyable. Citizen Zombie could almost be classed as a new brand of dance-punk. The spatial balladry of 'Nowhere Girl’ sees Stewart and his comrades venture to new pastures. The architect himself providing what could be described as the perfect melody.  
The Pop Group quickly revert back to their bread and butter, though. ‘Shadow Child’ operates deep in the dub-funk milieu, as Stewart’s trademark shrieks are ever-present. ‘S.O.P.H.I.A’ could certainly attests to the new form of democratic dance-punk, as Stewart shouts "Assume nothing/Deny everything/ Assume nothing/Everything/Everything".
Aside from sound, Stewart’s ideology remains at the ready. The opening title track is a spiteful indictment on modern society and those claiming to be our leaders. It's vintage Stewart with his polemic retorts and constant asking of questions. Citizen Zombie won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, most will either love it or hate it. That’s where The Pop Group has stood during the beginning, though. In fact, in many respects that‘s what makes The Pop Group, indeed, The Pop Group.
Favourite Tracks: Citizen Zombie, Shadow Child, Nowhere Girl, S.O.P.H.I.A, St. Outrageous.
20.
Artist: Roots Manuva

Album: Bleeds
Label: Big Dada

Some had claimed that Rodney Smith, A.K.A. Roots Manuva had lost his zest, teetering on the edge of non-pertinence. That’s when art is at its best, though. When creativity rises above the status quote and the collective voice of cynicism. Smith has used this cynicism as a manifesto to create one of his finest triumphs in Bleeds.
Bleeds is real. Bleeds is dark. In fact, it’s one of the darkest sounding hip hop records I’ve heard in a long time. It doesn’t hide behind misogyny or any other suspect allegories currently infested in the genre. It’s direct and it hits in all the right places. Bleeds is a pure stream of social consciousness.
 
I'm not qualified to elaborate on the importance of these songs (I’m just a normal bloke after all). From the raw emotional travails of ‘Hard Bastards’ and ‘Crying’, this one-two punch is filled with a menacing undercurrent for the masses to wake up. It’s a base for the final eight tracks to flourish. ‘Don’t’ Breathe Out’ is almost a head nod to soul. ‘Cargo’ is an acidic number with haunting piano and Manuva’s baritone flow which transforms into a banging chorus. Then there's ‘I Know Your Face’. If 'Crying' wasn't enough to get you dewy-eyed than this foray certainly will.
 
Unlike most acclaimed hip hop albums, Bleeds doesn’t outstay its welcome by incessant braggario and misguided anger. Its message is clear and very direct. Some maymight not like Bleeds because of this but it’s exactly why people should be lauding this effort. It's a call to arms for the masses to wake up and take notice. With Bleeds, Roots Manuva has presented an ominous snapshot of the stark realism which exists, making this one of the purest representations in hip hop for quite some time.
 
Favourite Tracks: Hard Bastards, Crying, Don't Breath Out, Cargo, I Know Your Face.
 
 
19.
Artist: Jim O'Rourke 

Album: Simple Songs
Label: Drag City
There’s a good chance Jim O’Rourke is among your record collection without you even knowing it. Wilco’s A Ghost is Born? How about Sonic Youth’s Murray Street or Sonic Nurse? Jim O’Rourke helped shaped these three albums into the landmarks they truly are. Then there’s his very much decorated experimental catalogue, and that’s not even delving into gold dust that is Insignificance or Eureka; his more ‘conventional’ affairs.

Simple Songs can attest to those conformist sounds which made Insignificance feel like O’Rourke’s road to Damascus moment. O'Rourke reaches these accessible points in a rather complex fashion. He orchestrates these moments symphonically. Just like the album’s moniker, O'Rourke has always rendered somewhat ironic song titles. This time around it's ‘Half Life Crisis’ which is arguably the best of the bunch.
‘Friends with Benefits’ has an air of similarity with some of the tracks off Lee Ranaldo’s Between the Times and the Tides. It’s a nice way to ease the listener in. ‘Hotel Blue’ is an art-rock traipse. It’s laden with strings and a melody David Bowie would be proud of. Simple Songs really builds up a head of steam from here. ‘Last Year’ has an aesthetic not too dissimilar to moments from Insignificance. ‘End of the Road’ is one of the slowest tracks O’Rourke has done, rife with slow piano, which builds and ends with more art-rock pastiche. ‘All Your Love’ ends Simple Songs in fine fashion with rumbling free-form drums and more melodic piano which O’Rourke has employed with aplomb throughout the album’s thirty-eight minute duration.   

While Simple Songs could very well rival the aforementioned magnum opus, O'Rourke yet again demonstrates his idiosyncratic interpretation of a genre that normally associates its sound with more user-friendly purveyors. That's why O'Rourke's music fascinates. 


Favourite Tracks: Friends with Benefits, Last Year, End of the Road, All Your Love.



18.
Artist: Editors

Album: In Dream
Label: PIAS

Birmingham’s Editors are a vastly different animal from the one many grew familiar with yesteryear. Apart from their most devoted followers who harboured the collective thought that The Back Room and An End Has to Start were British indie music triumphs, others quickly tired of the band’s following two records. They appeared slightly aimless and illustrated a band that was quickly running out of steam. I won’t lie. I’d almost forgotten about the Editors.

Some may think the Birmingham outfit have overreached with their fifth LP, In Dream. Perhaps plausible, however on the flipside you can hear a band that has totally reinvented itself. Isn’t that what creating something is all about? Are Editors back? I believe so, but not as we once knew them and that is the greatest aspect of In Dream.
‘No Harm’ is a gloomy opening affair, manifesting from frontman, Tom Smith's capacity to capture a poignant obscurity. It's a track which instantly grabs you, as Smith opening lines contain the lyrics of "I'll boil easier than you/Crush my bones into glue/I'm a go-getter". The new sonic experimentations during In Dream provide a worthy backdrop for Smith's brooding missives. Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell makes a much welcomed appearance throughout the record, too. 'Ocean of Night' is a melody driven affair that is reminiscent of the 2005 version of Editors, with grumbling bass lines providing a bridge to the new sonic incarnation of the band, where pianos and Goswell’s sweet harmonies arrive a with renewed vigour.

From this point Editors of 2015 takes hold. Okay, so the chorus of ‘Forgiveness’ could pose as background noise during the rolling credits of a BBC drama. I’ll give you that. However these moments are very few. ‘Salvation’ is a stirring number led by sparse piano and clever electronic incursions. ‘Life is a Fear’ and ‘Our Love’ descend from a 1980s dancefloor; the latter a captivating clash between the new wave and rock music. It's one of the few times such fusions don't pass off an unpleasant whiff of manufactured shit.

Where almost every other post-punk collective is gnawing at the carcass Joy Division, Editors have broadened their appetite, instead turning to the likes of Jon Hopkins’ Immunity; a distinct influence throughout In Dream. Look no further than the final closing track, ‘Marching Orders’. It’s the track that illustrates Editors’ sea change as complete and I have to say, it's a mighty fine one at that.
 
Favourite Tracks: Ocean of Night, Salvation, Life is Fear, Our Love, Marching Orders.
 

17.
Artist: Mercury Rev

Album: The Light In You
Label: Bella Union

After eight years in the wilderness (see what I did there? Okay, I’ll grab my coat), Mercury Rev are back with another offering of auditory pleasure in The Light In You. As time goes on, it would be fair to say Mercury Rev are at the stage where their followers are pretty much set in stone. Euphemistically it may suggest they are getting a bit long in the tooth, however their creative outfit remains unwaveringly pertinent.

Naysayers may say that The Light In You won't turn heads the way that seminal albums Deserter's Songs and All Is Dream did, but I tend to disagree. Like All Is Dream, patience is required to feel the full force of The Light In You and given the modern day listening habits, albums like this may never receive the plaudits they deserve.

Opening track ‘The Queen of Swans’ is majestic, its glacial sound effects creating an otherworldly fantasy vibe, which Mercury Rev have made their own since the band's humble beginnings. ‘Amelie’ follows-up from the impressive start with a richly orchestrated coalition of sounds. Suffice to say, there are plenty of other highlights through TLIY, too. The rocking ‘Are You Ready?’ provides a nagging bass line which is positioned in front of an array of rich sounds effects, raining from the sonic skies. Mercury Rev change it up, too, swimming in new waters with the upbeat closing track, ‘Rainy Day Record’. It's a fist full of anthemic brass, not too dissimilar to Broken Social Scene's 'It's All Gonna Break'.

Although mastermind, Dave Fridmann, isn't behind the soundboards on this occasion, the Mercury Rev brains-trust in Jonathan Donahue and Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak are the most obvious replacements and their efforts are one of reward. The ‘Rev’s framework of fantasy-laden atmospherics remains steadfast. Their ability to amalgamate fantasy and beauty has always been their strongest hand and like The Secret Migration and Snowflake MidnightThe Light In You continues these themes both lyrically and sonically. Is this a reinvention of the wheel? Probably not. However in this realm of rock music, Mercury Rev stand on their own feet and not on the shoulders of giants. Quite simply when Mercury Rev produce new sounds the world of music is a far better place with them around.

Favourite Tracks: The Queen of Swans, Amelie, Central Park East, Are You Ready, Rainy Day Record.
 
16.
Artist: Howlin' Rain

Album: Mansion Songs
Label: Easy Sound
Most associate Ethan Miller as frontman of the much revered Comets On Fire. Although his earlier workings throughout the Howlin’ Rain cannon consist of tracks rubbing shoulders with the cut and thrust of Comets’ oeuvres, Miller has also used the Howlin' Rain project as a juncture for his more conventional sounds.
During 2014’s Live Rain album, you could feel something was changing for Miller. I’m not one to indulge in live albums but this one provided a spark for me. That something appeared to be Mansion Songs. A lovely collection of tracks that Miller could easily call his best.
 
Miller still revels in the tried and trusted realm of ‘classic’ Howlin’ Rain. ‘Big Red Moon’ opens up and is much a barnyard stomp as anything else he’s previously written. ‘Meet Me in the Wheat’ could also be closely defined as such. It’s when Miller slows things down that it starts to get interesting. ‘Coliseum’ is a simple acoustic number with a pleasant melody, which pricks the ear. ‘Restless’ is an eloquent unhurried number that could have made it onto Almost Famous as Stillwater’s slow turn ditty. ‘Lucy Fairchild’ is probably the best number Miller has written under the Howlin’ Rain moniker, with rich pianos and a spell-binding melody, showcasing his phenomenal vocal range.
 
Just when you think it couldn’t get better than ‘Lucy Fairchild’, album closer ‘Ceiling Fan’ hands down transforms this album from a good one to a great one. Miller’s softly spoken words form a poetic tour-de-force which takes us through the streets of London and through the era of literary genius, with Larkin, Ballard, and Blake forming the basis of this journey. Miller sings the simple but equally stunning melody “I save one line for you/All forgiveness”. It’s a perfect track and one of my favourites of 2015.
Mansion Songs is an accomplishment where Miller really spreads his wings. It's an album that has shifted the axis of the collective mindset. Where many view him as the guy from Comets On Fire who also happens to make Howlin' Rain records, the latter project should now be the focal point upon which the masses view Ethan Miller. Yes, Mansion Songs is that good, folks. 
Favourite Tracks: Big Red Moon, Coliseum, Restless, Lucy Fairchild, Ceiling Fan.

15.
Artist: Hey Colossus

Album: Radio Static High
Label: Riot Season Records
 In this day and age making two albums in a year is almost unheard of. Not only that, but on the rare occasion when this does occur, the quality over the respective LPs usually flounders. Not in the case of English underground stalwarts, Hey Colossus. Choosing between their first 2015 opus, Black and Gold, and their follow-up, Radio Static High, was merely a case of splitting hairs. The latter came out on top, though, winning by the proverbial coat of varnish.

Despite the band’s members being scattered throughout various parts of the United Kingdom, Hey Colossus have been a part of a festering underground scene for years now. Having a slew of LPs (nine in fact) within their garrison, not to mention boasting just as impressive side projects (Henry Blacker being the most notable), it's as much their choice as anyone's as to why they haven't reached a wider audience. In their own words, this is just about hanging out with your mates and banging out songs. In their case, the ditties are of a monolithic variety.

Radio Static High is a bourgeoning representation of Hey Colossus. It’s an assortment of genres viscerally enmeshed to produce staggering results. These guys have impressive record collections. You can feel it through the music they create. The opening title track is a slow burning saunter, with droning riffs and reverberating tones. Quite a contrast to 'March of the Headaches', which is a speaker blowing sludge-rock stomp. 'Hesitation Time' may just been one of the best songs they've written and believe me, this band have written some numbers (look no further than ‘Hot Grave’, an exemplary cut from Cuckoo Live Life Like Cuckoo). 'Hesitation Time' is a no-nonsense guitar-crunching number with cutting synth and bludgeoning riffs. “The future is waiting/You better plan your attack,” sings frontman, Paul Sykes. 'Honey' is the perfect end to this record, intertwining all the elements which makes Radio Static High the proposition it truly is.

Those who indulge in progressive metal will enjoy this as much as those who delve into psychedelic and stoner rock. The Melvins, Boris, Earth, Dead Meadow. It's all here on Radio Static High, jam packed with impressive sonic textures spanning over ten finely crafted songs that are presented in menacing fashion.
Favourite Tracks: Radio Static High, March of the Headaches, Memories of Wonder, Hesitation Time, Honey.
 

14.
Artist: King Midas Sound/Fennesz

Album: Edition 1
Label: Ninja Tune
 An album that has seemingly slipped through the cracks for many, King Midas Sound and Christian Fennesz have collaborated to present their imminent dread on a many an ear. In many respects, Edition 1 is everything you’d come to expect from such a collaboration. Kevin Martin is rightly lauded in many quarters, however King Midas Sound is Roger Robinson’s outfit just as much as Martin’s. That’s not to discard Kiki Hitomi, either. It’s just that Robinson’s poetic dread is simply the fibre from which King Midas Sound survive on.
The foggy backstreets of London can be felt with Robinson’s poetic inflections. “I waited for you/You never came,” (‘Mysteries’) and "Now we've lost our path to paradise/Up ahead there's only stormy skies," (‘Waves’) are exactly the sort of musings we are used to hearing from Robinson. He’s perfected these shadowy moments. Fennesz’s contribution is subtle, with guitar glitches weaving in and out of Martin’s crippling sonic drones. ‘Mysteries’ sets the tone. Fennesz subtle guitar rumble provides the perfect foil for Robinson’s soulful vocal. ‘Waves’ and ‘Lighthouse’ are tracks which flow in a similar vein.
‘Above Water’ is a sonic stand-off between Martin and Fennesz as the 14 minutes wall of avalanche-like feedback poses as the album's quasi-intermission. ‘We Walk Together’ is Hitomi’s time to shine as her unnerving vocal rises from the dark mist of Martin’s pulsating drones.
Whilst Fennesz’s involvement is subtle, it's effective on Edition 1. Those who fell in love with King Midas Sound’s Waiting for You will certainly find themselves besotted. If reports are to be believed, this is the first of four collaborative efforts KMS intend to embark on. We wait with bated breath.
Favourite Tracks: Mysteries, Waves, Melt, Lighthouse, We Walk Together.
 

13.
Artist: Chelsea Wolfe

Album: Abyss
Label: Sargent House
Chelsea Wolfe has always possessed a peculiarity that has made me gravitate towards her music. Some sort of foggy spirit, or something. Preceding its release, once I saw the artwork of Abyss I just felt that it was the album that would finally reveal her potential. I’m glad I wasn’t wrong, as Abyss is Chelsea Wolfe’s seminal opus.

The themes of Abyss are centred on Wolfe's sleep paralysis, making the album’s artwork somewhat of a literal piece. In terms of sound, it's evident that Wolfe's association with artists portraying heavier sonic leanings has influenced the structure of Abyss. 'Carrion Flowers' is a clear testament to this, with its low end drone piercing through Wolfe's ethereal vocal.
The haunting figure that is 'Iron Moon' follows a similar path, with throbbing guitars and bass which make your internal organs shudder. 'Maw' is arguably the best thing Wolfe has ever written. Like the peculiar groove which comprises its chorus, 'Maw' is an elusive track inspired by What Dreams May Come, the 1998 film which starred the late Robin Williams. Wolfe and her band haven’t sounded better during heavy dirge that is ‘Grey Days’. ‘Crazy Love’ is a sorrowful stripped back acoustic number that moulds nicely around the collective of songs which form Abyss.
Is Chelsea Wolfe a poet in a musician's body or a musician in a poet's body? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between. The poeticism during Abyss is ubiquitous. It’s a rich, brooding journey made all the more impressive by the sonic incursions which augment Abyss’s genius and fundamentally transform Chelsea Wolfe into the queen of rich gothic-folk. If she isn’t America’s answer to PJ Harvey then I’m clearly missing something.
 
Favourite Tracks: Carrion Flowers, Iron Moon, Maw, Grey Days, Crazy Love, Survive.

12.
Artist: Self Defense Family

Album: Heaven Is Earth
Label: Deathwish

With its members spread across various continents, one gets the feeling that Self Defense Family loosely define the notions of being a band. Perhaps a modern day version of Fugazi without the personnel stability? Formerly named End of the Year, Heaven is Earth is Self Defense Family’s second album under their new moniker. Apart from frontman, Patrick Kindlon, Self Defense Family seems to be more like a revolving door of musicians creating sporadic art rather than a solidified collective that write songs. Heaven Is Earth certainly sounds like the latter, though. It consists of a melting pot of ideas; the sonic scaffolding certainly centred on the origins of post-hardcore and British post-punk.

Kindlon certainly sounds like an insular figure of sorts, to the point where his lyrics – the focal point – are hard to pin down. They have a hint of beat-poet about them. Look no further than the oddly titled opener, 'In My Defens Self Me Defend'.

‘Talia’ – the album’s first single – explodes with bending harmonicas and simmering pianos that function below an atmospheric post-hardcore pastiche. ‘Prison Ring’ is more of a reverence to early ‘00s indie rock and perhaps the most straightforward track on the album. The title track is slowest on the record and seemingly the most personal from a lyrical standpoint. ‘Dave Sim’ is the finest number on Heaven is Earth and a fitting closure to a record that doesn’t weaken from start to finish. It's an anthemtic fist-pumping foray presenting a gut-busting chorus that just about spells democratic vitality.

It’s worth pointing out that Kurt Ballou’s assistance behind the soundboards on Heaven Is Earth enhances the album’s capacity. His production is crisp yet provides the raw and spatial textures which capture what Self Defense Family are pushing for here. In conjunction with the songcraft from Kindlon, Heaven Is Earth is a clear winner and one of the hidden gems in music released this year.

Favourite Tracks: Talia, Prison Ring, Ditko, Dave Sim.
 
 
11.
Artist: Willis Earl Beal
Album: Noctunes
Label: Tender Loving Empire

Willis Earl Beal. A true punk. A troubadour. A man undoubtedly misunderstood. Three years, three albums. All of which are great, including his latest LP, Noctunes. As the title suggests, these songs were conceived during night time meanderings in his humble abode of a trailer/caravan. During the time of recording and release, he went through a divorce, spent a couple of weeks in prison and still managed to produce an LP that gets to see the light of day.

Noctunes is a rollercoaster of emotions. Love, hate, loss, hope; all the traits which have been at the forefront of Beal’s thematic travails. It's not easy to digest, Noctunes. It’s not an acquired taste, though. Patience is required for its essence to seep in. Four of five listens in, it starts to make sense.

You can feel Beal's pain. ‘Flying So Low’ almost feels like the man is on the brink. ‘No Solution’ is a evocative dirge about his marriage breakdown, as he sings “I wanna say something nice to you/I know I lost my wedding ring/The colours all faded blue/Now I lost track of everything”. ‘Stay’ follows and, as its title suggests, is just as gut-wrenching. ‘Able to Wait’ seems like a journey of hope. The last three tracks, ‘Survive’, ‘Start Over’ and the brilliant ‘1-2 Midnight’ are arguably the finest three tracks on the album and end this emotional rollercoaster where you sense that all is not lost and that Willis finds solace.

From start to finish, Noctunes is Beal at his most revealing. A true punk. A troubadour. No big studios, no hangers-on yearning for fame or fictitious bravado. It's just a man knocking out stripped back awe-inspiring songs. A true punk. A troubadour. People will laud the likes of Leon Bridges and Benjamin Clementine, but Willis Earl Beal isn’t some manufactured poster boy for the majors, nor is he a Mercury Music Prize nominee. No way. This man operates on the ridges. A true punk. A troubadour. Noctunes could very well be the vanguard of modern-day soul. In fact I’m quite certain of it, even if most people can’t see Willis Earl Beal for what he truly is. A true punk. A troubadour.
Favourite Tracks: Like A Box, No Solution, Stay, Able to Wait, Survive, Start Over, 1-2 Midnight.


10.
Artist: Majical Cloudz

Album: Are You Alone?
Label: Matador Records

While Impersonator well and truly put Canadian duo, Majical Cloudz, on the map, you sensed that the masses would soon tire of the duo’s sonic simplicity. After all, what better way to knock an artist down after building them up than to shred their much anticipated follow-up release? I’m glad to say that Devon Welsh and Matthew Otto have the defied the odds of the clich├ęd second album struggles with Are You Alone?

Welsh focuses upon all the things which teeter on the edge of romanticism; love, death, longing. Of that he’s no different than any other romanticist. Majical Cloudz don't provide the thespian back-drop, though, instead operating in a chamber-pop hybrid that’s so revealing that it’s almost uncomfortable.

Are You Alone? irrefutably has an alluring draw. While Impersonator felt very inward, Are You Alone? is very much an emotionally outward record and because of this you sense it has the ability to reach a very diverse audience, including listeners you wouldn’t associate as avid music fans, per se.

The minimal lo-fi skin and bone romanticism that is rife throughout these songs is very engaging. The eeriness of ‘Control’. The pop aesthetic the title track has to offer. The chamber-pop lament that is ‘So Blue’. The straightforwardness of ‘Downtown’. The glacial soundscapes of album highlight, ‘Game Show’. These songs approach uncharted territory for Majical Cloudz, essentially breaking their own boundaries.

There's something for everybody on Are You Alone? The twee devotee will enjoy this as much as the emo kid, not to mention that 'normal' guy. Just like the finest literature, passages on Are You Alone? can be construed as words which feel as though they were written specifically for the you, the listener. Welsh possesses an uncanny ability to evoke such emotions through his outward missives. Given the medium in which he’s offered his sentiments, it’s a valiant effort.

Favourite Tracks: Control, Are You Along, So Blue, Downtown, Game Show.

 
9.
Artist: The Icarus Line

Album: All Things Under Heaven
Label: Agitated

Simply put, The Icarus Line haven’t received the plaudits they deserve. If truth be told, they probably never will, either. Over the last fifteen years they have delivered some of the finest representation of guitar music put to record. Mono, Penance Soiree, and Slave Vows are all beguiling experiences. In their own right, they all have one thing in common. Each of these albums have a unique ability to make you feel ten feet tall.
Alongside the aforementioned long players, we can now include All Things Under Heaven; the band’s sixth oeuvre and easily their most eclectic. I remember listening to Buddyhead’s Travis Keller interviewing Joe Cardamone on the eve of the release of All Things….. Cardamone described Los Angeles as something akin to a choose your own adventure kids’ book. Strangely enough, this album has that exact feel.
Opening track, 'Ready or Die', is a dirty, dangerous number brimming from all corners of Los Angeles. Its prominent seventies garage rock pastiche would make Iggy proud. 'Total Pandemonium' is exactly that, starting off with a whirring keyboard drone which continues to stir underneath Cardamone's vicious howls. It sounds as if the new incarnation of Swans and The Doors are engaging in an outright pub brawl. 'El Cerno' slows it all down and sounds as if Cardamone has kicked Nick Cave out of the studio and decided to front the Bad Seeds. Then there’s the title track; an eerie impassioned spoken word expedition courtesy of Joe Coleman, who turns the general consensus of common-sense completely on its head.

While the 12 minute 27 seconds of guttural downer rock during ‘Incinerator Blue’ will mesmerise many, the visceral inflections of ‘Solar Plexus’ transcend it, weaving in and out of the Penance era of The Icarus Line. This time, though, it’s far a more dangerous animal and one of the finest snapshots of this band. Funnily enough, it could be argued that the finest moment during All Things Under Heaven comes at its final juncture in the elegant ‘Sleep Now’. Festering saxophones, droning keyboards and Cardamone’s tender vocals morph this track into the most beautiful thing the band has written, yet again adding another string to the bow of this rock ‘n’ roll behemoth.   

I believe every city has a sound. I’ve never been to the place, but All things Under Heaven certainly feels like an embodiment of Los Angeles. Or at least the Los Angeles I’ve viewed from afar. Just like King Midas Sound have captured the fog of London. Just like Bill Ryder-Jones encapsulates the witticism of Liverpool. And of course those haunting moments one associates with Sigur Ros and Iceland. Add The Icarus Line and Los Angeles to the list.

In some ways it's non-pertinent to rank albums such as All Things Under Heaven. Regardless of the digital age and people's different listening habits, albums like this continue to reveal themselves as the years pass. Should I be lucky enough to be still clinging to the mortal coil in thirty years' time, I have little doubt that this is one album I will be talking about.


Favourite Tracks: Ready or Die, Total Pandemonium, Solar Plexus, Mirror, Sleep Now.

8.
Artist: Deafheaven

Album: New Bermuda
Label: ANTI-

As far as outer expectations are concerned, Deafheaven have probably felt these pressures like no other band. While Roads to Judah caused a ripple in the ocean, the shift in attention Deafheaven experienced after the release of the landmark Sunbather was indeed seismic. Likened to Majical Cloudz, there were undoubtedly many with the build ‘em up knock ‘em down approach with poison pens at the ready, only to retreat when the band’s third submission, New Bermuda, became audible.

Many will call this Deafheaven's magnum opus, as the remnants of black metal and to a lesser extent, shoegaze, have never reached audiences so far and wide. While New Bermuda is certainly exceptional, it would be prudent to acknowledge the seeds which were planted yesteryear when Sunbather floored so many in its path.
George Clarke’s vocals have taken a slight turn on New Bermuda. The piercing throaty howls heard on Sunbather and Roads to Judah have been replaced by guttural shrieks, which almost appear rooted to the traditional origins of metal. This is noticeable during his first interaction with listeners on opener, ‘Brought to Water’. Guitarist Kerry McCoy’s majestic eclecticism shines throughout, too. Sure, the fury is evident, but is tempered by pleasant ethereal interludes and that’s down to McCoy's proficiency. ‘Luna’ stacks up alongside Deafheaven’s finest work in ‘Tunnel of Trees’, ‘Dream House’ and ‘The Pecan Tree’. The last four minutes is probing, as Clarke and McCoy collaborate in one of their most powerful moments yet.

More than ever, there is an array of influences on New Bermuda. The beginning of ‘Baby Blue’ is a head nod to hip hop, as Daniel Tracy’s drumming adds further dimensions to this ensemble. His drumming is dynamic from front to back on ‘Bermuda. The solemn dirge of ‘Come Back’ sounds like something Low, the Red House Painters, or Codeine could have written. The homage to post-rock is paramount, too.  

New Bermuda very much strengthens the framework Deafheaven previously erected during their first two albums. There will further debate as to whether New Burmuda is that album, however Deafheven are band that make consistently impressive music. They are songwriters. They are artists. Over the course of their three albums, the vividness is profuse and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue in the future. Despite what the metal purists have to say, Deafheaven’s array of influences enhances their eminence as a forefathers of the genre.

Favourite Tracks: Brought to Water, Luna, Baby Blue, Come Back.